We were lucky: when we took over the management of the family farm in 2015, one of us had never farmed before, and one hadn’t since he was a boy. We were, for the most part, starting from zero, or from dim memories. We had to learn a lot, and fast, as the first sheep on the farm for 30-odd years arrived less than six months after we became a team…and there was only one field (barely) able to hold them. We knew so little, really, that we were able to start from a nearly blank slate, and become the kind of farmers we need to be, rather than what we’d been told we had to be.
Most of our time and money, in those first five years, were spent on repairing, and putting in new, fencing. Now, the entire farm is subdivided into a network of fields, some very active, and some mostly wild. We have one big repair job left to do, and then we hope for only minor tweaks and repairs for the next few years. Our Hebridean sheep and GOS pigs rotate through the fields, tame and wild, in what is called ‘rotational grazing’ – a term, like so many others, we learned some time after we were already doing it.
What kind of farmers we are started with the sheep.
We chose Hebridean sheep for many reasons: they’re a native Scottish breed (which speaks to our ‘made in Scotland’ vibe), with a history of near extinction and survival that touches something deep and personal in both of us. They can exist – even thrive – on poor and rough grazing, which was most of the farm when they arrived. They’re small, something I needed so I could function on my own, should Donald have had to travel for his ‘other’ job. Now that he doesn’t travel, we’re both old enough to appreciate their small size and weights on sheep treatment days. But we had no idea how intelligent, personable, and trainable they were – or how much we’d fall in love with this amazing breed of animal. But mostly, we had no idea of how right they’d be for us and this Highland farm, or how much they’d teach us about the kind of farmers we would be.
For a large part of the year, Hebs don’t need much care. We bring the breeding ewes into the fields closest to the house (the ‘home’ fields, or ‘in-bys’) for their last trimester, so we can monitor them, and give them a little extra care and feeding if they need it. They stay close through lambing and the month or so after, while we treat and tag their lambs, and treat any ewe that has a hard time of it. Many people don’t even do this much – their Hebs lamb out on the hills, in the traditional manner, in all kinds of weather, and will only bring in the hard cases. I think bringing them in is more for our benefit than theirs – we’re just not that into climbing through the gorse, looking for a new or lost lamb, or having to help them deliver in the midst of the kind of sideways blowing snowstorm we had during this year’s lambing season. We also bring them in for regular care routines, like vaccinations or shearing. But for the rest of the year, they pretty much take care of themselves, and we only need to make sure they have food and water. And because they’re Hebs, and they’re resident on a farm that had been unworked for 30 years…and because we were starting from scratch (mostly) in our farming ways… we became Regenerative Farmers in our effort to feed and water them – though as with so many labels attached to what we do here, we didn’t know what that was at the time. It was just what we naturally did, what our breed allowed us to do. Since then, Silvopasture, rotational grazing, permaculture, perennials, native-species meadows, overseeding, underseeding, no- and low-till, companion planting, tree fodder… so many words and phrases have become part of our vocabulary.
I used to think our first step into this was our argument (which we’re both glad I won) about Green Manure. But as with so much, it really began with the sheep.
We don’t use dogs to help us gather the sheep. We have a dog, a fierce, spoiled, and loveable little Jack Russell who thinks he can take down a full grown deer (and he nearly could, in his younger days). He’s useless around the sheep – wavering between wanting to hang out with them, and running from them. So our sheep are ‘bucket trained’. But when they first arrived, they were nothing but feral wild things – and terrified of us. And we had asked the vet to visit, to give them a look over, and us a Health Plan. So we had to find a way to gather them. I did some reading…and took a chair and some sheep cobs into their field.
The first task was to just be there, to get them used to my presence, without feeling I was a threat. Next, I tossed some cobs in their direction. They ran from them at first, of course. But then they came back, sniffed around, ate them…and wanted more. I lured them in… One day, I was able to feed a ewe her cob from one hand, and slowly reach down between her front legs and scratch her chest…her ‘sweet spot’ with the other… and watch her go still. Then, she moved in closer. And that’s still how we test which animals are going to be tame, and which ones only love us for the cobs. And not pushing, but letting them decide which they’ll be, is a basic skill that now extends to the entire farm. Is the northeast corner of Westfield too wet to grow tractor-dependant crops like hay or tatties? Then we’ll put in a pond, and grow wet-loving perennials there, keeping the large equipment on the dry side of the field. Do the bog or woodlands need lighter grazing and a light human touch to be able to support our sheep as well as the myriad of wild things that depend on them? Well, a light touch and lighter grazing it is. Are we too fond of sitting on a rotting lump of tree in the woods to want to move it – or too busy with other tasks to clear the piles of trimmings? Then the lumpy seat and piles stay, and both become habitats. We pay attention to what the land tells us, like we pay attention to what the critters – tame and wild – who live here tell us. The wilder Hebs still follow the bucket when they need to. They all love their cobs. But we’re actually grateful that most of them are no tamer than that, as we can’t spend all day scratching chests… can we? (We have just learned, six years on, that some call this kind of watching, listening, and waiting, ‘Permaculture design’. We just call it part of a day’s work.)
Donald laughed at me, at first, as I sat out in that field with the sheep, arm shaking from fatigue as I held a cob out for what seemed like forever. It was everything he’d been taught not to do as a young yin on this farm: ‘don’t name them, don’t treat them like pets’ (though he even broke that rule, occasionally, as a boy). But he doesn’t laugh now, and spoils them worse than I do. In return, they’ll follow him anywhere, which is super handy.
He certainly didn’t laugh, when I first suggested Green Manure. He thought I was nuts. He’d finally fixed or replaced enough of the ancient, buried drainage pipes to dry Westfield out enough to begin working it. We wanted to plant kale the next spring. It was nearing the time to order in the supplies needed to prep the field before winter set in, so it would be ready for a crop the following year.
I’d read about Green Manure in one of my ‘granola girl’ articles, those hippy-dippy mags that talked about living close to nature and hugging trees. He thought it would be more time consuming and expensive than traditional fertilizers, with less return. But he hates fighting about stuff worse than I do, so finally gave in and agreed to try it. It was a marvellous success, of course. Now we question the entire idea of what is ‘traditional’ about methods farmers were pushed to start using only 70 or so years ago. We think what we (and more and more like us, especially among the young starters) are doing, are really the ‘traditional’ ways – the ways that allowed humankind to farm the land for the preceding millennia without doing the kind of harm we’ve done in the past few generations.
Now, all those terms and techniques included in Regenerative Agriculture are part of our vocabulary, sure. But we just call what we do farming. And we wouldn’t want to do anything else, or do it any way else. We’re so grateful that the sheep made us stop, sit in that field, and take a different path to the one we had been told we were on. Even Donald’s mum, who thought we were crazy to bring sheep and their money-sucking habit of trying to die for no good reason back to the farm, got it before she left us. I’ll never forget the day – and her reaction – when I put a little black lamb in her lap.
We were lucky to have been so ignorant, when we took over management of The Hirsel in 2015. We were also lucky that one of us was a tree-hugger, and the other was already leaning in that direction, despite his early years’ training. We were lucky to choose – for reasons having nothing to do with regenerative agriculture at the time – the breed of sheep we did. We now realize how lucky we were that the farm was in such a state of disrepair, with wild places, encroaching woodland, and fields that demanded adaptation from us. That we weren’t as young and energetic as we’d once been, able to tame the entire place at once, and forced to take it slowly. That his mother had held onto it for 50 years, through all the challenges that threw at her, though she’d aged out of working it so long ago, leaving it to its own devices…but leaving it intact, for us to take over so many years later. Lucky that there was so much fencing to repair, while other tasks waited and were given time to be reconsidered, while we developed our style and approach to the fields and woodlands they encompassed. And we were lucky to have taken the farm over at a time when the style that came naturally to us as a team was coming back in vogue. All around us, the farming community is waking up (again) to regenerative farming, to listening to the land, to the need to live in better harmony with it…for all our sakes.
We’re lucky, alright. And we know it.